Halt the Head-hunting

Before a tragedy occurs, the NFL must rein in the kind of hitting that has caused a rash of concussions
December 19, 1994

Dear Commissioner Tagliabue:
I trust you are having a good year as the NFL turns 75.

How could you not be, with 16 of the 28 teams in the league still alive for a playoff spot and with a product that is much improved over last year's. Defenses may hate what your competition committee did in the off-season to put more scoring back in the game, but the fans are thrilled. Scoring is up by almost a touchdown a game over last year, and TV ratings, overall, are up 10%. ESPN's numbers are up an astonishing 28%.

But we would be remiss if we told you that all is well with your game. It is not. There is trouble in the NFL, and you've got to do something about it.

During the '90s an unprecedented viciousness has pervaded the game. The epidemic of brutal hits has led to the premature retirement of a fine wide receiver, Al Toon, who ended an eight-year career with the New York Jets in '92, and of Chicago Bear running back Merril Hoge, who quit in October because his brain was scrambled from two concussions in six weeks. I talked to Hoge eight days after his second concussion, and in mid-conversation he said, "Damn! I forgot again. What were we just talking about?"

Last month wide receiver Don Beebe of the Buffalo Bills was nearly beheaded while going across the middle for a pass in a game against the Jets. He suffered a concussion too and missed three games. His wife has begged him to retire.

Football is all about hard hitting—smart, clean hitting. It would be idiotic to legislate against it. And concussions will happen with or without modifications of rules or equipment. Still, the number and intensity of helmet-to-head licks this year, particularly on quarterbacks, is alarming. Former New York Giant quarterback Phil Simms sits in the ESPN studio every week now, which enables him for the first time to watch all the games on Sundays, and he tells me he can't believe the amount of head-hunting he sees.

Commissioner, football may be about hitting, but it is not about mayhem, It is not about Arizona Cardinal linebacker Wilber Marshall launching himself like a cruise missile into the chin of Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman. It is not about Houston Oiler linebacker Lamar Lathon steaming into Giant quarterback Dave Brown's face after a pass, knocking Brown unconscious before he hits the artificial turf. It is not about Los Angeles Ram defensive end Fred Stokes plowing through Atlanta Falcon quarterback Jeff George after he has released the ball. Not one of these hits resulted in a penalty.

The line between hard hitting and mayhem may be a fine one, and you don't want to turn the game into two-hand touch, but you must change the way defensive players behave on the field or a real tragedy could result. Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith once said of pass rushing: "It's an art. It's also a car accident." Nailing the quarterback has always been the goal of defensive players. Stokes, an eight-year veteran, is one of the league's gentlemen, a fellow who, with his team's permission, excused himself from a game last season so that he could be present for the birth of his second son. I asked him what he felt as he homed in on George that day in Atlanta. "It sounds animalistic," he said, "but I got such a rush, I was slobbering. That's the game. It might be crazy, but it goes back to Pop Warner football. At every level, the harder you hit, the more you get patted on the back and the happier you are."

That's the culture you're up against, Commissioner. But you've got to look defensive players in the eye and tell them that enough is enough. It's time to put some tough rules in the book and enforce them. Here's the SI Rx to do just that.

•Punish helmet crimes severely.

Any defensive player who leaves his feet to inflict a helmet-to-head blow on either a quarterback—as Marshall and Lathon did—or a receiver should be suspended for a week and lose a game's pay. When Arizona strong safety Lorenzo Lynch left his feet to level Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham on Nov. 20, the TV announcers barely acknowledged it, though a penalty was called. This is the worst kind of head-hunting, and it has to be outlawed.

•Suspend the cheap-shot artists.

A third unnecessary-roughness or roughing-the-passer call on a player in one season should earn the player a one-week suspension without pay. In the World Cup we saw how rough play could be curtailed by the issuing of a yellow card as a warning for a flagrant foul. A second yellow—in either the game in which the original foul occurred or in the next one—resulted in ejection from the remainder of the game and from the following one. A similar system in the NFL might cause defensive players to rein in some of their aggression.

•Add an eighth official, the quarterback judge, to each crew.

The referee has the task of monitoring the offensive backfield once a play begins. The fact is, too much is going on for the ref to be able to see everything that goes on in the backfield. A quarterback judge would focus on the quarterback and nobody else. The cost to the league of adding this official? About $750,000 a year. That's about a third of what an advertiser will pay to run one 60-second commercial during the Super Bowl.

•Make every player—especially quarterbacks—attend a lecture on the padded helmet, and urge them to wear it.

After San Francisco 49er tackle Steve Wallace suffered the fifth concussion of his career on Oct. 16, he decided to wear a Pro Cap, a half-inch-thick rubber shell attached by Velcro to the outside of his helmet. "Everyone laughs at me," Wallace says. "But what's more important—your ego or being able to play with your kids with a clear head after your career is over? I'll never play again without it."

Wallace says that before he wore the shell, a helmet-to-helmet hit would cause grogginess and watering of his eyes. Three weeks after suffering his most recent concussion, Wallace was wearing the cap when he banged helmets with a Washington Redskin defender, and he felt no ill effects. Wallace believes that all quarterbacks ought to wear these shells. "With defensive players getting bigger," says Wallace—who, at 6'5" and 280 pounds is not especially large for his position—"and stronger and faster, the hits on quarterbacks are harder than ever, and I know this would help them stay on the field more. I'm amazed the quarterbacks aren't all wearing these."

What's the downside to the helmet cap? There is none.

•Take a stand against artificial turf.

The first of Ram quarterback Chris Miller's two concussions this year (following story) occurred when his head was whipped against the unforgiving turf in the New Orleans Superdome. It is not feasible to maintain a grass field in a domed stadium—though that could change in the next few years—but the league should urge the seven outdoor teams that play on rugs to install grass pronto.

In 1992 a study conducted by John Powell, the director of the league's Injury Surveillance System and an independent research consultant, found that certain types of knee injuries occurred more often on artificial turf than on grass. The plastic stuff simply does not provide the cushion that grass does, and a head slamming into artificial turf is more likely to result in a concussion. Within the last six years, three teams—the Bears, the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots—have switched back to grass. Good for them. George Toma, the dean of stadium groundskeepers, whom you now employ, tells me that Giants Stadium, or any stadium in colder climes, can have a grass field that thrives into January, even with two home teams playing on it. The World Cup insists on grass at its venues. Why can't the NFL?

Last month I watched some film of the Jets game against the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 20 with New York quarterback Boomer Esiason and his backup, Jack Trudeau. Esiason released the ball on a play in the fourth quarter, then got hit by two defensive linemen—John Randle high, Roy Barker low—both of whom took two steps after Esiason released the ball. The rules clearly state that a pass rusher is allowed no more than one step before hitting the quarterback after he has released the ball. The referee, standing a few steps behind Esiason, never called a thing. The film then showed Esiason railing at the official.

"The thing that ticks me off," Esiason said, "is that you don't see the flags for late hits. The league's too worried about the bullcrap things. I just got a letter from the league, telling me I'd been fined $1,500 for the horrible offense of having my T-shirt showing underneath my jersey. It's absurd! The league office would rather watch my uniform than my knees."

I know what the defensive players will say about all of these suggestions. In fact, they've already said it to me. Henry Thomas, the Viking All-Pro defensive tackle, was stunned to hear that I intended to lobby for more rules to help protect the quarterback. "I say back off and let them play the game like real football players," he told me. "Quit crying. You know how many dirty shots I get hit with?"

Well, Henry, life is not fair.

The reality of the NFL is that the game is damaged far more by an injury to an Aikman or a Dan Marino than by one to a lineman. I sympathize with the plight of the fellows in the trenches—especially with their gripe at the misguided rule that allows offensive linemen to block them high and low at the same time on running plays. However, it is important to keep in mind that no player on the field is more vulnerable to serious injury than the quarterback is at the moment he releases the ball, or than a receiver is as he pulls in a pass. In both instances, the player is focusing on a target and is in no position to defend himself against a crushing blow.

Commissioner, these are not drastic changes that we are suggesting. Even if all of them are adopted—and we hope they will be—no one will mistake the NFL for croquet. The game will remain what it should be: a fierce battle of speed and strength. The only difference may be that fewer players will emerge from those battles with debilitating, and possibly life-threatening, head injuries.

By the way, I spoke with Merril Hoge last week. He's doing well, working some TV games for Fox and figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. "Everything's pretty much all right," he said, "Except for the headaches. You ever get those hunger headaches, like when you've just got to eat something? I get those, and they won't go away, even when I eat."

Here's wishing a healthy holiday season—for you and for all the players in your league.
Sincerely, Peter King

PHOTOLOUIS DELUCA DALLAS MORNING NEWS (BROWN)So far this season, Brown (left), Aikman (above), George (bottom) and Jeff Hostetler of the Raiders have all been knocked woozy. PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (AIKMAN)[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL FRAKES (HOSTETLER)[See caption above.] PHOTOAL BELLO/ALLSPORT[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERQuarterbacks such as Hostetler (far left), Steve Beuerlein (7, above), Cunningham, Mark Rypien (11) and Brown are clearly at risk from defenders who lead with the helmet and aim for the head. TWO PHOTOSJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.] PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT[See caption above.] PHOTOSCOTT HALLERAN/ALLSPORTThe Pro Cap worn by Wallace (left) would help absorb the impact of helmets colliding violently. PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLERA concussion sidelined Aikman (above) in October and the Rams' Chris Chandler last month. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above.]